Statistics and Other Taboos

James Taranto, Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2013

When politicians and media people call for “a conversation about race,” one suspects that what they have in mind is an exchange so one-sided that it would be more lecture than conversation. A detailed confirmation of that suspicion comes from Jen Eyer, who is not from Charlotte but from Michigan. She is “statewide community engagement director for MLive Media Group,” which publishes a website for a consortium of midsize Wolverine State newspapers.

Eyer has a post–one of a series on what are termed HOT BUTTON ISSUES–titled “How to Discuss Racial Issues on MLive Without Violating the Community Rules.” It should be titled “How Not to Discuss Racial Issues . . .,” because it consists of a list of seven things to avoid:

1. Overt racism. . . . 2. Accusations of racism. . . . 3. Generalizations. . . . 4. Thread-jacking. . . . 5. False equivalence. . . . 6. Racial descriptions. . . . 7. Crime statistics.

We should preface our critique of Eyer’s rules by noting that this is not an issue of free speech. Every form of speech that MLive bans or discourages is protected by the First Amendment, but so is a private corporation’s right to exercise editorial control over its own website–and, of course, our right to criticize the manner in which it does so.

Some of the restrictions are reasonable. It’s hard to quarrel with the injunction against “overt racism,” which turns out to mean the use of racial slurs, “a one-strike violation” that results in immediate banning, according to Eyer. On the whole, however, the rules are designed to skew the conversation so as to favor what these days is called the “liberal” view of race.

An exception is No. 2, the discouragement of “accusations of racism.” Eyer sensibly adheres to what we’ve called the “hard” definition of racism as meaning (our paraphrase) a theory of racial supremacy or inferiority. Accusations of racism are seldom either accurate or constructive. “A better choice would be to say a comment is discriminatory,” Eyer says, though it seems to us the word she’s looking for is “prejudiced.”

But things begin to go wrong with the third item, “generalizations.” She gives two examples: “You can take the kid out of Detroit but you can’t take the Detroit out of the kid” and “It is NO coincidence that the vast majority of those incarcerated, are of African American descent. Their culture promotes this kind of ‘thuggish’ behavior.”

Eyer has a colorable argument that harsh generalizations about “black culture” are at best oversimplifications and “do not promote constructive dialogue.” But she doesn’t object to all generalizations. She says it’s fine to talk about “problems in society” that “contribute to crime–like poverty, lack of education, violent video games, or music.” The first in particular seems an invidious generalization about poor people, most of whom are law-abiding and many of whom are victimized by crime.

In addition, note that her only examples are of generalizations that are (explicitly or implicitly) at the expense of blacks. Academic and mainstream-media racial discourse is rife with invidious generalizations about whites (often formulated as “white males,” even when sex is irrelevant). {snip}


“False equivalence” is another one-sided objection. Eyer particularly dislikes the rhetorical question “Why is there no White History Month?” Fine, it’s a silly question, though it hardly seems an intolerable one. She continues: “More examples of false equivalence include ‘If this had been a white man attacking a black man . . .’ or ‘If a black woman had done this instead of a white woman . . .’ ” Such comments, she writes, ” tend to set off a stream of hypothetical replies that have nothing to do with the story at hand.”

It seems to us that hypotheticals of this sort are meant as an appeal to fairness, a challenge to consider how one’s own racial prejudices may be influencing one’s view–or, if directed to someone at a news organization, one’s coverage–of crimes and the like. And again, it goes both ways. Eyer’s examples are vague enough that one can’t quite tell, but from the overall tone of her post we doubt she’d object to a question like, “What if George Zimmerman had been black and Trayvon Martin had been white?” One need not agree with the assumptions embedded in that question to consider that it is worth thinking about.


Perhaps the worst of her no-nos is No. 6, “racial descriptions.” She explains that “commenters sometimes ask why racial descriptions of suspects are sometimes not given, even when they’re available from police.” After a brief discussion of the complexities of editorial judgment that go into the decision to include or withhold such descriptions, she concludes: “If a racial description is not included, commenters can assume that in the editor’s view, the information was not warranted in that case.”

That simply begs the question. Of course it’s an editorial judgment, and by definition it’s the editor’s to make. But if readers are not permitted to question the editors’ judgments, what’s the point of having a comments section at all?

Finally we come to “crime statistics.” We tweeted the post last night with the comment: “News website bans discussion of crime statistics in comments,” which prompted Eyer to respond: “That’s a gross mischaracterization.” We’ll concede it was a slight exaggeration, but Eyer made a concession of her own by posting a comment to her own post this morning acknowledging: “I have edited the portion above on crime statistics to clarify exactly what I’m talking about.” We didn’t save the original; the following quotes are from the edited version.

“We’ve seen an uptick in commenters posting FBI crime statistics in an attempt to paint the problem as one of race,” she writes. “Usually these crime statistics are not helpful to the discussion because they lack other details, such as socioeconomic status, that give context.” So we’re back to “poverty” as the cause of crime.

The overall thrust of Eyer’s rules is to ensure that discussions of race at MLive conform to the media stereotype of black victimization at the hands of white oppression. As is often true of stereotypes this one reflects a considerable degree of truth. Certainly it is the prevalent theme in the history of American race relations between colonial times and the mid-1960s.

But it comes nowhere near capturing the complexities of today’s society. For nearly half a century blacks have had recourse to a robust regime of protections against discrimination, not to mention remedial racial privileges under the banner of “affirmative action” and a vast network of antipoverty programs that seem only to have aggravated the problems of dependency and family breakdown. These days elite culture, including the news media, routinely vilify whites, especially “white males.”


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